In this guide, we will tackle some of the most common myths about serial killers.
Many of these myths have been perpetuated over the years for the sake of entertainment.
In a lot of documentaries, you will find that the facts are sensationalized, details are left out, and the serial killer is transformed into a dramatized version of themselves.
TV shows, tabloid websites, and biographical movies also perpetuate these myths by focusing on the stereotypes and “half-truths” that are more likely to captivate their audiences.
Sadly, like many true crime topics, this one is often shrouded in factoids and other misconceptions.
Myth #1 – Serial killers are intelligent.
There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that serial killers are smarter than normal people. Researchers at Radford University in Virginia looked at the IQ scores of 202 serial killers. Using this data, they were able to calculate that the median IQ score of these serial killers was actually 89.
According to Louis B. Schlesinger, who is Professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the intelligence of serial killers “copies the normal distribution of the general population”.
In other words, serial killers tend to have a pretty normal IQ.
Take the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, for example. His IQ is somewhere in the low eighties. This actually puts him below average. Despite this, he is still America’s second most prolific serial killer.
This myth has been spread by TV shows and movies because the concept of a “dumb” or “average” serial killer isn’t as exciting to audiences.
Another issue is that documentaries about these killers are prone to sensationalism. Many of them are “sexed up”, so to speak.
For example, Ted Bundy’s intelligence is often overblown for the sake of drama. Although he was certainly bright, he was not an evil genius who could trick any woman into walking back to his vehicle.
All in all, there is no reason to believe that serial killers are more intelligent than the average person.
However, despite the evidence, this still remains one of the most common myths about serial killers today.
2 – All serial killers are white.
This is another myth that you’ll often see people repeating online. In a previous article, we wrote about the existence of black serial killers.
In that article, we pointed out that there have been dozens of cases of African American serial killers. However, they received far less attention than Dahmer, Bundy, or BTK.
For example, Samuel Little is the most prolific serial killer in American history. The authorities currently believe that he is responsible for the murders of at least 50 women.
In terms of Asian serial killers, there are the likes of Wang Qiang, who murdered more than 45 people in China. Another example is Kiyotaka Katsuta, who was convicted of eight murders in Japan.
There have also been a number of Hispanic serial killers, such as Fernando Hernández Leyva. Levya is currently serving time in “La Palma” prison in Mexico for murdering 33 people.
Last but not least, there is Pedro López, a Colombian serial killer who was nicknamed the “Monster of the Andes”. He was named as such because he murdered 110 young girls in Colombia and Ecuador during the 1970s.
As you can see, race does not matter. Serial killers span all racial groups. The idea that all serial killers are white has no basis in reality.
3 – They cannot stop themselves from killing.
Another popular myth is that serial killers cannot stop themselves from killing. However, this isn’t the case.
Although serial killers often find it extremely difficult to control their urges, it isn’t impossible for them to stop.
Especially if they find another way to satisfy their fantasies.
For example, Dennis Rader’s last victim was murdered in 1991. However, the police did not arrest him until 2005. This means that Rader stopped killing for 14 years. He later told detectives that he had been able to satisfy his fantasies during this period by engaging in various auto-erotic activities.
Basically, he found a substitute that kept his urges at bay.
More recently, the authorities finally caught up with the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo. In 2019, he pleaded guilty to 13 counts of murder. DeAngelo’s last known murder was in 1986. If we do the math, then this means that he went dormant for nearly 32 years.
We know that most of these predators are driven by deviant sexual fantasies. We also know that people’s libidos tend to decline with age. Therefore, it is possible that their paraphilias simply become more manageable as they get older.
4 – They are weird loners.
Movies and TV shows often portray serial killers as weird loners. However, this is usually not the case.
- Gary Ridgeway was married and had five children.
- The BTK Killer, Dennis Rader, was married and had two children. He was also a scout leader and the president of the church council of Christ Lutheran Church.
- Ted Bundy worked at a suicide hotline in Seattle. He also worked for the Washington State Republican Party.
- In Canada, Russell Williams was a colonel who commanded an air force base.
- John Wayne Gacy was married, had two children, and ran his own construction business. He was also a Democratic Party precinct captain.
As you can see, many of these men were able to lead relatively normal lives, despite their crimes. They weren’t loners by any means.
5 – Serial killers are psychotic.
Another misconception is that serial killers are psychotic.
In other words, they hear voices, see things, etc.
Although certain disorganized offenders can match this description, the vast majority of serial killers know exactly what they are doing. They are not delusional. They have not lost touch with reality. These men are fully capable of telling the difference between what is right and what is wrong.
This myth is popular because a lot of people tend to confuse the term “psychosis” with “psychopathy”. However, these are two very different things:
- Psychosis is a mental health condition that causes people to lose touch with reality. They may hear voices in their heads or start to believe things that aren’t true.
- On the other hand, psychopathy is a personality disorder that causes antisocial behavior. People who have this disorder tend to lack empathy and remorse. They also indulge in manipulative, self-serving behaviors.
A lot of serial killers are psychopaths. However, they are usually not psychotic. People who suffer from illnesses such as schizophrenia are more likely to be harmed than to cause harm to others.
Many of these murderers will play the “insanity card” after they have been caught. They do this in the hope that they will be found not guilty by reason of insanity.
For example, the Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, claimed that he had been receiving orders from his neighbor’s dog. However, after the trial, he recanted this story and admitted to FBI profiler Robert Ressler that he had made it all up.
6 – America has the most serial killers.
This statement could be true or false. The problem is that we simply do not know for sure.
It is true that the majority of recorded serial killers have been Americans. However, this may have been due to better investigative methods. For example, it was the FBI that first began to profile serial murderers in the 1970s. For all we know, similar crimes went unnoticed or unsolved in other countries. Especially in countries with fewer resources to spend on policing.
Furthermore, serial killers have existed throughout history.
Gilles de Rais was a French army leader who is believed to have murdered up to 140 boys and girls during the 1400s. In October of 1440, de Rais was hanged to death for his crimes.
Relatively speaking, the United States is quite a young country. Therefore, it is not outside the realm of possibility that other countries have had far more serial killers.
7 – Their Modus Operandi (M.O.) will never change.
This myth is completely untrue, as many serial killers will change their M.O.
The modus operandi is the offender’s method of operation. It is a tool that the he uses to achieve his goals.
For example, a killer could use a knife during his first murder. However, he might discover that using a knife led to too much blood. As a result, he may decide to strangle his next victim.
Basically, the M.O. can change as long as the offender feels that there is room for “improvement”.
Ted Bundy started off by breaking into women’s homes and murdering them. Later on, he began to lure women to his car so that he could strike them with an object and then kidnap them. Towards the end of his crime spree, he reverted to breaking and entering again.
As you can see, Bundy’s M.O. changed multiple times. This is fairly common, as criminals will often “tweak” their crimes in order to improve them.
Notably, a killer’s M.O. can also regress and become sloppier. In other words, they can become so overconfident or lazy that they begin to take fewer precautions than they initially did.
8 – They want to be caught.
The vast majority of serial killers do not want to be caught. Instead, they tend to slip up and make a mistake that leads to their capture.
These men can become overconfident, sloppy, and lazy. They can also become more impulsive as time goes on.
“The Co-ed Killer,” Ed Kemper, claimed that his urge to kill became so strong that he began taking risks that broke his normal “rules of operation.” In other words, Kemper became more impulsive. Consequently, he began to take fewer precautions.
Notably, Ted Bundy also spoke about this aspect. During one interview, Bundy likened it to changing a car tire: “The first time, you’re careful. By the thirtieth time, you can’t remember where you left the lug wrench.”
Inevitably, this overconfidence leads to a slip-up that allows police to hone in on them as a suspect.
Psychopaths tend to have a comically enhanced view of themselves. This often leads them to believe that they are much smarter than the police. In many cases, you’ll find that the killer completely underestimated the detectives who were investigating their crimes.
Killers will sometimes go out of their way to taunt the police or their victims’ families, even though doing so is an unnecessary, self-serving action that puts them at a higher risk of being caught.
As we mentioned in “Myth #1” above, most of these criminals are not smarter than the average person. Many of the notorious predators that you’ve read about only got away with their crimes because law enforcement wasn’t as organized at the time, technology wasn’t as widespread, and DNA forensics did not exist.
Read more: Why are there less serial killers today?
9 – Serial killers always target a specific type of person.
Although serial killers often have a particular victim type, they won’t always stick to that type.
Many of these killers are situational predators who will prey on anyone who crosses their path. If they do have a preference, then they may stray from it if their urges are strong enough and the opportunity presents itself.
For example, Bundy’s type was typically young, college-age women. However, he also murdered two 12-year-old girls.
Having a type and only targeting that type are two different things.
10 – All sociopaths are serial killers.
While many serial killers are sociopaths, most sociopaths do not have the urge to murder others.
There are thousands of sociopaths and malignant narcissists walking among us.
They might be manipulative, controlling, dishonest, and lacking in empathy. However, most of them do not possess the motivation to kill.
Although murdering someone might not phase them as much, they are aware of the consequences of committing such a serious crime.
There are a lot of myths and stereotypes about serial killers, many of which exist because they have been consistently pushed onto audiences.
For example, documentaries may overemphasize certain “strengths” of the killer while glossing over their mistakes. Biographical films will focus on the most entertaining aspects of the “character”. Entertainment and tabloid news websites will write sensationalist clickbait titles about the subject in an effort to make more money from advertising.
As time goes on, the story becomes more and more warped, leaving us with a bunch of nonsense and half-truths.